If you’ve driven after dark or in the fog, you’ve seen it: a car up ahead with no rear lights illuminated, barely visible on the road. Drive up alongside and you’ll see the driver, their face lit by the bright light of the speedometer, probably wondering why you’re staring or even waving at them. The instrument lights are all on, so they assume all the outside lights are on, too.
It’s a “phantom vehicle” and as of this month, they’re illegal to be sold as new vehicles in Canada. This month, the law changed to stipulate that taillights must come on automatically as well as the daytime running lights in the front. Alternatively, when darkness falls, the taillights, headlights and side marker lights must all come on automatically.
About time too. This is an issue of the last three decades, ever since December, 1989 when daytime running lights (DRLs) were made mandatory for the front of new Canadian vehicles. When that happened, drivers stopped thinking about their lights because they knew they were taken care of by the computers in their vehicles.
Not only that, but modern dashboard instrumentation is almost always lit in some way, either as lamps to illuminate analogue gauges or as fully-digital displays. The intensity of the light can be adjusted to the driver’s preference, but when the headlights are off, because it’s daytime, the intensity is at its strongest to make the gauges clearer.
The idea is that when it gets dark, the very bright light from the instrumentation will remind the driver to turn on the headlights. Many drivers don’t realize this, however, because they just don’t know any better. They treat their cars as appliances and they assume all the lights are on. After all, they can probably see well enough under the street lamps, although they’re next to invisible to others from behind.
There is one more alternative in the new law that accommodates this. If the lighting system is not automatic, then the dashboard must stay dark, to alert the driver to turn on the lights.
It seems a simple idea: lights are as much for being seen as for illuminating the road ahead. The Scandinavian countries were the first to embrace the idea of lights on all the time, with Finland mandating them in 1972 for use on snowy, rural roads, and then Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Denmark mandating them over the next 20 years for even when the sun is shining. The European Union made DRLs compulsory in 2011.
After all, what’s the harm in it? In the old days, bulbs were unreliable and the lights were used only when absolutely necessary, but that technology passed half a century ago. Attitudes have changed around the world toward vehicle lighting. Even in holdouts like India and Egypt, where drivers would routinely keep their lights off at nighttime for fear of wearing out the bulbs, and where others would think something was amiss if you’d accidentally turned on your lights, modern lighting is winning the battle and turning night into day.
But it’s not been so straightforward to enact this law. In the United States, DRLs are still not required, though they’re often equipped. Some argue that DRLs are a danger to motorcyclists, because the bikes’ headlights won’t stand out so much in a sea of lights from other traffic. Others say that drivers will quickly become used to seeing lights everywhere and their effects will be negated. Numerous studies seem to dismiss these theories.
The biggest issue for auto makers is the cost of retooling, because the wiring harnesses must be redesigned. Some manufacturers, like Volvo and Subaru, have included DRLs at both the back and front of all their vehicles for years, but others have been forced to come into line for the new Canadian law.
The cost “would have been significant if we’d tried to do it ourselves on an optional basis,” says Stephen Beatty, vice-president corporate of Toyota Canada Inc.
“Various features are built around a specific wiring harness, and for what it’s worth, those changes in wiring harness are designed to save pennies per vehicle, but when you’re making hundreds of thousands of the same model, all of that adds up. But from the standpoint of standardizing it, it’s not a big impact.”
In other words, if everybody has to do it, then it has no effect on competitive pricing. However, says Beatty, “whether it’s Yaris-sized or RAV4-sized, all that base technology has to get into the vehicle, so it drives small and historically economical vehicles out of the appropriate price range. There are always unintended consequences to any regulations.”
In this case, congratulations are due, at last, to Transport Canada, because I’m happy to pay that extra cost if it means the end of phantom vehicles after dark, or in the fog. They’ll probably now all be gone within a decade as they get rear-ended out of existence. Until then, I just wish there was an effective way to wake up their remaining drivers and tell them to turn on their damn lights.